SID SALTER: Midterm elections set political template for the 2011 state elections

By Sid Salter

The 2010 midterm elections have produced a political template for Republicans that may prove easy to follow in a number of state legislative races in 2011 – and the 2012 national ones as well.
State Sen. Alan Nunnelee and State Rep. Steven Palazzo have used that strategy to their benefit in the 1st and 4th District congressional races. The phrases from their campaign rhetoric are exact mirror images of the other’s.
Both are warning voters about the dangers of the “Obama-Pelosi agenda” and “jobs-killing agenda” of President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Tradition is dead
The bottom line is that Republicans have honed a message and stayed on message for the entirety of the campaign – and that message is that the long Mississippi tradition of categorizing members of the state’s congressional delegation as so-called “Mississippi Democrats” as opposed to “national Democrats” is forever dead.
Mississippi Democrats have not struggled to define their identity to the electorate in such a futile manner since the mid-1960s, when the party slowly disintegrated as the national Democratic Party struggled with the schism between the so-called Mississippi Freedom Democrats and the Mississippi “Regular” Democrats over recognition at the 1964 and 1968 National Democratic conventions.
The 1970s saw the state’s Democratic Party reunite, but the monolithic dominance the party had enjoyed in Mississippi for a century was broken. The “new” Democratic Party was diverse and racially inclusive – but the party saw many of the former financiers of the “old” Democratic Party defect to Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and solidify first behind independent George Wallace in 1968 and Republican Richard Nixon in 1972.
More GOP gains
“Mississippi” Democrats with seniority in Congress in the 1970s – Big Jim Eastland, John C. Stennis, Jamie Whitten and Sonny Montgomery – were able to hold their positions in spite of growing Republican gains until they retired from Congress. But with the election of Thad Cochran and Trent Lott in 1972 to the U.S. House, Republicans who had no trouble maintaining a close alliance with their national party began gaining ground in the state’s congressional politics and haven’t stopped.
Will Mississippi voters take partisanship down to the level of the state Legislature in elections rather than “voting for the man or woman?” The best evidence in Mississippi suggests that for both parties, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes” and that’s likely to grow in 2011.
This election has brought partisanship to a new level in federal politics in the state and it’s likely that the trend will continue in state politics in 2011. Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans.
Sid Salter is Perspective Editor the Clarion-Ledger. Call him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.